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RIP Boots

I’ve been tempted multiple times to go back and look for them, but I haven’t yet, and I won’t. It could be detrimental if I found them gone, picked up by a stranger or torn apart by the new train. It’s best to let them stay buried. So I picture them instead, black and combat-style, sitting underneath the dirt and dying in the way a pair of boots might die. I think about what Emma looked like the last time I saw her. Kissing the sole of that left one, right where the words were scratched, dressed in baby blue. I wouldn’t have recognized her had it not been for the black straw hat dripping down the sides of her face. Usually she was draped entirely in black, black lace full of little rips evidencing that moths surrounded the place she called home, wherever that was. I never found out. Usually she was in fake pearls, the kind being chipped away from excessive wear, or in cheap trinkets she bought from me that dangled down to her stomach. Looking like any girl you might pass by on the street in 1999 who felt they were mistreated by the world. Any girl who had spent their early years watching My So-Called Life, maybe, except that she didn’t watch TV because she once told me she had no TV, and I imagine even if she did she would choose not to watch it. But that day, she was in baby blue. She had handed the pair to me, first the right one, then the one with the epitaph of decay scratched onto its sole. Rest in peace she had told me. Her lips were plain that day. I was concerned because the only source of color usually came from her lips. Sometimes in reds, pinks, purples, blues. She would watch me apply plain Chapstick now and then behind the counter, and with her hands cupping her narrow chin over the register’s counter she would ask me how come I never colored anything bright. As if the color on her two thin lips were enough to brighten all that black. I would point to the floral patterns on my blouses, to the glimmer of gold and pink in my glasses, but her attention was drawn toward my naked lips. She would stare heavily at them, and then lift her face up abruptly, as if she were suddenly aware she was having a conversation.

“Are you ready to start the day, my dear?” I had said, smiling while wiping the counter. I had put on the faintest red lipstick, silly me, thinking I could be best friends with someone nearly half my age.

She carefully lined up the heel of her foot with the toes of her other. She walked seven steps toward the counter this way, keeping her focus on her feet. Even her boots were colorful that day; a bold brown opposed to a familiar black.

“Remember when we first met?” She had finally said. “Rest… in… peace,” she whispered. She lifted my right hand, kissed the top of it as if she were an old-fashioned daughter or lover bidding farewell. Then the boot received its kiss and she left. Smiled, turned, straight out of the shop. Swinging her legs up, bouncing her waving baby blue skirt, holding down her oversize straw hat with her fingers. I watched her until she made it down to the start of the abandoned railroad tracks.  She didn’t look back to say goodbye.

When she stepped over the tracks I called her name, but she couldn’t hear me. So I settled for summoning her in a different way.

Faintly, by and by, I would hear her voice. It was when I walked by the rack of beige wedding dresses. I used to think they were beautiful before I met her; now their hangers stared at me like lonely faces, their arms hung helplessly to the side of their corsages sleazily draped in twenty-five dollars worth of jewel and bead. They spoke in harsher, more dismal tones than they used to.

When I reached out to hold one of their hands out of an empathy I cannot explain, I would hear Emma snort next to me.

They belong to the moths. Nobody cares enough to keep them as a keepsake, and now they’ll be doomed to hang here, stuffed right next to each other in rows but weeping all the rest of their dreary days. As if they have any right to be loners because one person didn’t come up and pick them off the rack. People try them on, but most of them are stubborn. Just watch them and you’ll see what I mean. They don’t try to fit onto anybody. They don’t try to make their beads shine with color when someone wants to dance in them, to show off. They’ve given up, and because they are so full of self-pity they will rot. Face it, Willetta.

“They’re waiting for their perfect fit,” I tell her. My voice gets high when I’m upset, and my cheeks turn a champagne sort-of pink; because of this I can never lie to someone who knows me.

Yeah, like they have time to do that. I bet this entire town will be renovated and restored before these dresses find ‘perfect’ owners.

“Watch your mouth.” I lift up the right sleeve of the white Renaissance-looking one, kiss the top of it. Dust sticks to my Chapstick lips, and I taste it on my tongue until closing.

She was there five minutes after opening. I had never seen her before, and here I was thinking I’d met every rock in this small town. She walked in and waved, as if we had met before, and I watched her look through the colorful pins, costume jewelry, darling dresses, reindeer and heart-print sweaters, cassettes and tapes and vinyl that contained treasure most people overlooked. One of the tapes I had snuck in was a sermon my father had preached; the only time I heard his voice was when I heard the tape. When I was a girl, I think I believed in God only because it felt like believing in God meant believing in my father.

One particular vinyl I had put in the pile was a hit single in the early 1940’s, “Paper Doll” by The Mills Brothers. I paid particular attention to that vinyl, because it couldn’t go to just anyone. My grandpa used to turn this one on and sing along, after emptying his cigar-smoke-filled cheeks. Meanwhile, I would pull out the paper dolls my grandma had bought for me and pretend they were my mom. Mama, you look so pretty in this one. Do you want me to get you pearls to wear with it, too? I would dress them and dance with them, barefoot on the kitchen floor doing what I thought was the waltz, as my grandpa sang about paper dolls. Then I’d take pictures with my Polaroid of each of their outfits, pasting them in the only journal I ever owned; one that belonged to my grandma who was never much of a writer. When I first opened her journal there were only two pages that were filled and I found them only after flipping through carefully.

To Buy/To Do

  1. Pack red lipstick Buy lip balm (more practical)
  2. Safari dresses á la Katharine Hepburn; so you don’t have to look in the mirror to know you’re gorgeous, doll
  3. Bring vinyl — can you bring vinyl to such a place? Ask Gregory
  4. Viewing magnifiers for seeing strictly-wild things up close; so close you’re afraid they will breathe on you
  5. Extra pens to record observations and thoughts (so as not to forget!)
  6. Extra money for souvenirs (can you buy souvenirs there? How much money to bring?) Ask Gregory
  7. Don’t forget to call Doctor Schwartz at 592-34–
  8. Don’t forget that you put your bag under Gregory’s side of the bed, not yours
  9. Don’t forget to remind Gregory that Willetta goes to piano on
  10. Don’t forget the keys are in the second drawer of your dresser, as usual. (The vanity’s drawer)
  11. Don’t forget to remember to wake Willetta up early so she can say good-bye
  12. Tomorrow(today if you are reading this) will be Tuesday, the seventh
  13. Don’t forget that you leave on Tuesday, the seventh, today! First flight at 1:30p.m. Bon voyage!

And the other:

“How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”

~ William Faulkner

I never understood what she meant by “strange roof”. She had always lived under the same roof, in the first house grandpa had bought her. I thought perhaps she was referring to the time she was in Africa for a week, the first time she left Grandpa and me on our own. When she got back, she had told me stories about how she slept in dusty tents and blankets and had to take her friend Daisy with her every time she wanted to use the restroom. Grandma would roll up her dress and do her business, with Daisy standing with her back to her, watching for lions. She blushed every time she told the story, covering her grinning lips with her withering fingers.

“Childhood romantic dreams of safaris and African Queens and painted jewelry were lost in those moments,” she would tell me. “It wasn’t worth it to be away from you two. Do you understand what I mean? Do you understand that no place is better than home?” I was a young teenager.

“Yes,” I would say, my voice turning high. I wanted to travel.

She would pause for a moment, staring for minutes at a time at my face, her eyes glossy and her head cocked to the side. I thought for the longest time it was the stories that drained her. I thought she had been so involved in the stories that it was practical she would need minutes to find her way back to reality. I didn’t question her forgetting my name now and then, or what day of the week it was, when she could tell such stories. She was older, and I almost expected details to fade from her mind as they surfaced to appear, in fine lines, on her skin.

On the page after Grandma’s notes, I wrote the only journal entry I’ve ever written:

March 24, 1979

Grandma told me today about trepanation. It’s pretty gross, to the max. Egyptians used to do it and they would make a hole in your head and let the evil stuff leak out of it. but really they just would hurt people because they didn’t have the medical knowledge we do. Grandpa always talks about how medically advance we are and how we could solve anything, so no worries. Grandpa keeps making a joke today saying grandma got a hole in her head when she went to Egypt, because she forgot that yesterday we bought a kitten, who I named Lula. She threw her outside and I looked everywhere for her until I brought her back. Grandma kept saying sorry but she really couldn’t remember when we bought her yesterday. She was even there! So when she told us about the trepanation grandpa made that joke and we all busted a gut laughing, and now grandpa keeps saying it, and I want to write it down so I don’t ever forget it because it was so funny.

            I can hear Emma next to me so clearly as if she never left the shop that day: They all died. All your paper moms died. One was drowned in the sink after her porcelain ship sank to the bottom. Another was pulled away in the wind after the door was left open during a storm. And I know you recall when the cigar fell onto your third mom, burned a hole right through her head and made her lose all her memory of every dress you ever decorated her with.

She’s pulled out a book on paper dolls and is punching out the little dresses from them, throwing them at my feet.

Stop!

I look at Emma again, wandering around the shop, and see she’s pulled out a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

“I hate these, I can never read them. I constantly have to flip to the beginning to remember what’s happened.” She talks to me like we are friends who see each other every week, maybe work together.

I nod. “You didn’t see anything good in the music section?”

“You have a funny way of organizing things,” Emma says. Although I don’t know her name is Emma just yet.

“Everything is arranged by color, isn’t it?”

“Nobody ever mentions that.”

“Well I just did.” She grabs a chunk of vinyl from the greenish cover section and brings it to the register, along with a pair of black combat boots.

“All of this?” I don’t know if I can part with all of it at once like this; I am wondering if she will take her motherly responsibility to this collection seriously. She seemed to grab that handful of vinyl without thinking.

“What’s your name?” She’s picking at the multi-colored pins near the register.

I pick at the register’s buttons, slowly.

“Willetta.”

Willetta. That’s a weird name.” She scrunches her nose as if she’s finally inhaled the dust.

“What’s your name?” It’s the least I should know about her, since she is about to walk away with a bagful of my friends.

“It’s Emma, spelled with two m’s.”

Emma.

“You don’t go by Willie or something?”

“Just Willetta.”

“That’s a pain in the ass to say.”

I stop punching buttons on the register.

“Well… that’s my name.”

“Alright, Willetta, what’s my total then?”

“Thirty-three seventeen.”

“Awe, geez louise, Willetta, I didn’t bring enough money to cover it all.”

She rests her elbows on my counter, tilts her face up so I can see underneath her black bangs. I meet a pair of earnest black eyes.

“Thirty-three seventeen.”

Her fingers massage the laces on the boots and then, as if popping a peppermint into her mouth, she takes the bit of the plastic-enclosed lace at the end and sticks it in her mouth.

My hands hit the counter hard. “Ma’am, please! Stop that! Oh, I do hope you’re buying those…. In fact, I’m going to have to require you to buy those. Please.”

She grins, the boot dangling out of her mouth. She lifts the left-foot boot with her mouth like a dog, and shakes her head. This is the point where I start to thinks she’s nuts. Mentally handicapped. Probably thinks she’s a real dog; probably is one of those psychos stuck in that perpetual fantastical state-of-mind, unwilling to grow up if you ask me.

“Why aren’t you stopping me?”

The shoe falls.

“I mean, I’m standing here eating a shoe and you’re still over there on the other side of the counter. What do I have to do, lady, bite off a piece of the leather and chew?”

“I asked you to please stop,” I remind.

Words? That’s your big idea on how to stop me? Words might be great and all, but really, you could talk to me all day and I wouldn’t do anything. There are better ways to make me listen. You could hit me like my dad does, for instance. He keeps his rings on. Wedding ring, class ring, and one I mistakenly gave him for one of his birthdays. You can put on all your antique rings and punch into my sides. Or you could take some of these pins, open their mouths and throw them at me like pretty little darts.  You could strangle me with my own shoelace; this looks long enough right here.”

“You’re crazy,” I tell her. Plain as that. I’ve never called anybody crazy before. I’m wondering if I should call CPS about the comment about her father, but I’m having trouble understanding whether or not she’s serious. Kids like to mess with you.

“Maybe so. Don’t sell these shoes,” her voice dips as she reaches to grab the shoe that fell from her mouth. She places the pair on the counter, pushing them toward my hands.

“Don’t sell them. I’ll come back in a while to get them, I swear to God I will. Do you believe in God? I swear to Buddha, I swear to Zeus, I swear to Joseph Smith, I swear to Madonna, I will be back to get these shoes!” She’s delivered a speech, chin held high, hands moving everywhere. I fear for the little crystal pins.

I don’t say anything before she’s out the door. Then I stand there; holding up the boots’ laces between pinched fingers.

“Thank you for your business.” My voice is high and my face is warm as she runs out the door. I shake my head and throw the boots under the counter. She won’t be back.

The second time I see her, fifteen minutes later, she hands me thirty-three seventeen in exact change. I wanted to take them all at once, she says, scooping up the green vinyl and the combat boots. So none feel more special than the others. And then she leaves, and I watch her go, stopping at the abandoned railroad tracks to put on the shoes. Her bag full of green vinyl swings on her arm, she spins on the track, lifting her skirt and laughing, doing the two-step down the tracks until she disappears behind the town’s old print shop. But before she disappears, she looks back, and I know I will see her again.

In totality, I only spent maybe one week with her. Her eyes would stare patiently into mine; those black, bulging things. Her colored mouth would smirk, smile, guffaw as sound escaped it. I thought she wanted to stay.

She asked me what year I was born, and I told her 1966. She asked about that year and I couldn’t recall anything specific, but I did know that The Sound of Music, one of my favorite movies to watch with my grandmother, had opened the year before.

She told me the world might end soon, that Y2K would be here and that I should go to a party before the world ends. I told her I only wanted to be here when it happened, and besides, I thought Y2K was silly. It’s an event to give suppressed people a chance to do something inexcusable or outrageous they’ve always wanted to do. Believing a change so tremendous would happen within one day was laughable.

Usually she asked silly question that I didn’t mind answering. Like, what would you rather do: never change out of your favorite dress for the rest of your life, or never be able to wear the same thing twice? Never change out of my dress, I had told her. No need to waste clothes. I had pointed my finger at her and shook it when I told her.

One day she asked about my grandmother. I told her I visited my grandmother’s grave every other Saturday to leave her white roses. She answered:

“She liked dancing, right? You should dance around her grave the next time you see her. If you’ve run out of tears, she’ll understand. I’ll bet she’s sick of people coming over to her and just crying on her, drowning her in tears.”

“Don’t talk about your grandmother that way”, I had said to her.

We didn’t talk for the rest of the day.

            Rest in peace, grandmother.

Taylor, Leonora Elizabeth

            (May 4, 1922- March 24 1981)

            Leonora Elizabeth Taylor was sent to heaven on March 24, 1981, a heaven where she was happily reunited with her baby girl and son; a waterless heaven, she discovered, where cruises took place on colorful clouds. A place where age doesn’t exist and where wind doesn’t misdirect, but instead exists solely to tickle long, silver hair. She was a vivacious, gentle, yet feisty woman, always picking on Gregory and reminding Willetta that real love meant not being afraid to poke fun of one’s object of affection. She particularly enjoyed dressing up and going out, being shown off; she believed it was a tragedy if one didn’t enjoy being shown off, and she was beautiful enough to be right. She is survived by her husband Gregory Taylor, whom by some miracle she managed to say good-bye to moments before she packed her bags for heaven whilst crying and telling him she would not forget him, and by her granddaughter, Willetta Elizabeth, who knows her especially by her stories, and who wants her to know she will keep all of them safe. Willetta remembers everything. Every walk by the lake where Leonora held her hand tightly, the laugh that came from her mouth after she found out Willetta had forged a permission slip telling her P.E. teacher she could not swim because she was allergic to chlorine and her skin would turn completely green if she were forced to swim, every waltz on the kitchen floor to “Paper Doll” as Gregory sang, every costume dress Leonora brought back for Willetta to play in. There will be a celebration of life for our loving wife, mother, grandmother and friend on Sunday, March 26, at 6a.m. (Willetta’s favorite time of day, right as the sun hit the blackened earth) at Life Church, the church where Willetta’s father used to preach. Flowers, particularly white roses (her favorite) are especially welcomed, but please try to control your tears. Our family is not particularly fond of water.

            Contact Willetta Taylor at Old Tyme Antiques to hear or share a story about Leonora’s life. Please, please contact Willetta. She wants to share, needs to share. It’s the only way Leonora can return, if only for a while.

 

“About these shoes, Willetta—I need to return them.”

“What?”

“I need to return these boots.”

“I’m sorry, but you can’t.”

“C’mon, Willie,–”

“Willetta.”

“Willetta. Listen. The shoes are telling me to kill somebody. Kill them. Do you want to be responsible for that?”

“For—what on earth are you—”

“I didn’t see it coming, either! I had no idea. I put them on, and just like that they were talking about murder. They talked about killing her, absolutely slaughtering her! Taking a knife to carve her like a turkey, to gut her like a pumpkin. It will renew her, they said. Like she’s going to be renewed in blood, like the blood of Jesus Christ.”

I look up from the shoes, into her face. Her eyebrows have nearly touched her hairline, her lips pursed together, as if she won’t speak until I do. She has long eyelashes peeking from between strands of black bang, and although she’s wearing an outrageous shade of even paler purple lipstick than she was before, she looks quite docile.

“No. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Then you need to take them back.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It means that you take them back. Put them back on display and give somebody else a chance to take them; somebody who actually wants them and is willing to wear them now and then and not keep them cooped up in the back of their closet. They are already so worn out, but they still have soles, and they are worth it, Willetta, they are worth taking back.” She’s taken on the tone of both salesperson and beatnik poet.

No; I don’t understand because about forty minutes ago you came in here telling me I could absolutely not sell these to anybody else. It was practically life or death if I sold these to anybody else, and now you’re telling me I have to take them back or I’ll be responsible for murder? I’m sorry, missy, but I’m not in the mood to put up with this right now. Or ever, actually. Please leave my shop.”

“Just look at them. Just look.” She pushes the boots toward me. “On the bottom of the left sole.”

I play along, peek at the bottom of the left shoe. Sure enough, in faint gray as if scratched with keys, it says RIP.

“Did you do this?”

“Oh, no ma’am. I can’t imagine who could possibly have done this. It’s sick. It’s twisted. It’s dark, Willetta.”

She takes her elbows off the counter. She gently gives the boots a loving pat as if to tell them it’s not their fault they’re psycho.

“It’s difficult to leave them after I’ve just gotten them. I know I probably sound crazy to you. A lot of people call me crazy. But I’m not crazy. I just can hear things that other people block their ears to. I can hear the stories. I’m trying to explain what I mean…but it’s like I can look at something, and I can hear its desires. I can see where it’s been because I pay attention to detail.”

She’s holding the left shoe, stroking its leather skin.

She’s treating it like a friend, with care, and the intensity of her sincere tone is overwhelming.

“I can hear the dresses talk,” I finally say. I clear my throat, look down at the counter, start counting the little crystal pins.

Emma’s eyes cut into mine, they are skeptical.

“What I mean is I know what you mean.”

It’s not that the dresses have mouths like we do, and they open them and they speak sounds like English or French or Portuguese. But there is a baby blue dress with a lacey cream collar that has cried to me, told me about how the tiny blood stain, invisible to almost any eye but my own, came upon it.

You see, it was out on the lake in an antique canoe with its owner when she started bleeding profusely; so it was abandoned, thrown into the water, pulled from its owners bulging and broken stomach. Its owner jumped into the water, because she could swim faster than she could paddle. The wind overtook the boat, and it ran into a pile of rocks, leaving the dress completely alone. There, alone, the dress would wash itself in the water, scrubbing, scrubbing, and trying to rid itself of the blood. It rid itself of all but one stain, blue maroon in the spot below the hips, a haunting reminder of the loss of what it once held. No. Nobody wanted the dress because it was stained with that shameful spot.

I can hear them all. Sitting on their hangers and obsessing over their appearance, wondering why they haven’t been taken. Whispers of why they’ve been disowned, why their original owner didn’t care to have them around, or forgot about them entirely.

There is a satin strawberry champagne nightgown that spoke to me one night as I was closing. I was weary, but it kept pulling my eyes in, then talked louder and louder until I would listen. Its owner had worn it to bed with her lover, but the lover took one look at its outdated sleeves, and the tiny cream ruffles around its skirt and neck. You’re still a girl, the owner’s lover had told the owner of the dress. The dress blushed strawberry champagne with embarrassment, and those words were soaked up as truth, and the blush was so precise, that it became its permanent color. The owner tried to rip the dangling ribbons from its collar after fleeing to the bathroom, but once gone, the dress became even more childish and outdated than it had before. Its ribbons were its roots, and now it was lifeless.

“Like this dress right there,” I say to Emma, pointing to a sagging peach beige dress hanging forlornly on a rack. “Nobody wants it because it has a hole in it, see?”

I run my hands through its stiff, lace-y bottom until my finger falls into it; it’s the size of a bullet but it wasn’t shot. Its edges are singed, like someone ran a candle through it. I know its story: one of a different lady and her love, quite the pair. This dress looks so old I reckon it could be from the 40’s.

“This dress used to be quite the charmer, you know.”

“Is that so?” Emma manages this with a tone of sincerity.

“Yes. It was bought by an enamored fiancé for his wife-to-be. Well, she kept the dress for years, wore it all over the town and continued to get compliments on it. One night her and her then-husband lit a candle in the bedroom; they were getting romantic before this big event he was going to bring her to, so he could continue to show her off. As he wrapped his arms around her to kiss her, he lifted her up, and this bottom part of the dress grazed the candle. But rather than catching the entire dress on fire, a tiny flame appeared, and hung onto this little circular spot on the dress, as if this entire peach dress were now its new body of wax. The lady thought it was mortifying. She was supposed to attend an event that night and had planned on wearing no other dress, nor did she want to wear any other dress. Her husband, after putting out the tiny flame, thought it added to the dress’s amazement and enchantment, but the lady was considerably irked by the hole in her dress. She did not expect to have a hole in her dress at such an event. Eventually, she told him she would not go with him that night. She had a hole in her dress and it was causing all the compliments to leak out of the dress, one by one. She could no longer recall that Mrs. Osborne had told her she looked like quite a doll in it, and such. The memories of the dress started to seep out, too, and all the girl was left with was a hole, nothing else. She stuffed the dress into the garbage, and had it not been for her husband to scoop it out and donate it in hopes it would get another chance, Lord knows where it would be now.”

“But why does it matter?” I almost forget that I am telling the story to someone. Emma caresses the hole, then yanks her finger down and suddenly the perfect circle is gone.

“Emma!”

“Those stories are depressing! Why do good stories all have to be depressing? I’m sick of it! I won’t be a part of it!”

She is racing now through the racks of dresses, pulling them off their hangers, throwing them into a pile of ashes at my feet; they are bodies without bone.

“Here are these sleeves that you have kissed. I’ve seen you kiss them before.” Her black eyes pour directly into mine. “But where is their fruit now? Huh? Even if they were to somehow come back to life, if they were given another chance, who’s to say their life wouldn’t be wasted on meaningless parties, or plagued with more sorrow and loss? Vanity, vanity, all is vain under the sun!”

She throws a baby yellow sundress above her head, and it explodes in the excitement of freedom, falling over her face.

“We are vain creatures! And I’ve decided that we shouldn’t care, because we’re going to die.” She is prancing around the pile of dresses, picking them up and muttering ladies’ names before she tosses them: Goodbye, Leona! Goodbye, Eleanor! Goodbye, Rebecca!

“They are all dead now, I bet. They are not wise, not antique, not old-fashioned….that’s a cover for the fading, that’s a cover for the decaying, that’s a cover for those who know they have to die or have to change.”

“Get out of my shop.”

“No.”

“Get out of my shop.”

She’s fallen to her knees, face in her palms, heaving. Over and over she is mumbling, Why does it have to be so depressing?

Then, she whispers: “I wish I could save them all.”

When standing over her, I see how tiny she really is. Her black dress is a heavy drapery over her small body. Her stomach is folded over her knees, arms and hands tucked in around them. She reaches out to the pile of dresses around her feet, my feet, and strokes the dresses, one by one.

“I’m sorry your story has been so sad,” she tells them.

Right then and there I forgive her. I wonder if her dad really hit her with rings.

“Do you want to work here, with me? To help me save them?” I bend my own knees. I once read that when talking to a child, it’s good to get on their level.

Her violet lips curve upwards, she puts her thumb and index finger between her chin, inhales, and shuts her eyes. As if she will find the answer only when she blackens her surroundings.

I blacken the boots’ world after three weeks of not seeing Emma skip in and sniff the air of the shop, sneezing each time. They had remained there under the counter, in the same spot I had set them after she had whispered “rest in peace” and left. Though I tried to take them back, it became increasingly obvious they were not mine. Their black leather was darker than any of the other shoes’ leather, and I swear I could smell them from the register; mothballs and burned wood and mud, the kind of mud that sinks the soles into the ground so deeply it makes it difficult to pick your feet back up.

I heard them scream so loud at one point, a battle cry- or was it a cry for help? They were screaming that they were dying, that all the shoes and everything around the shoes were dying. So I grabbed them off their rack, slipped my size 8 feet into their size 7 home, and did what I had never done in all my years of owning the shop—I walked outside in the middle of work, listening.

Ah, yes. I could hear the voices within a minute. Rest, they whispered when I stepped on my right foot, In peace, they sighed, when I stepped on my left. Rest, In peace, Rest, In peace, Rest, In peace.

I ran. The further I was from my shop, the more I expected to be lost though I knew someone would have to try to get lost in this town if that’s what they wanted to be.

Eventually I peeled my stinging and suffocating feet out of the boots and began to dig, coloring my fingernails with the damp dirt. I buried them near the abandoned railroad tracks. The track hadn’t moved in years back then, and I had no intention of it moving.

I’ve considered going back and digging up the boots, but I haven’t yet, and I won’t. It’s best to let them stay buried.

Image

            Today I am back to the place where I spent the first half of my life, and everything has changed but the carpet and pews and maybe something else, but I can’t put my finger on it because I’ve never been that observant. It’s been a solid seven years since I last walked into this building. The key to it is cold in my hands, and I run my fingers up and down its skeleton as I walk the aisles. The lights are on but it’s dark outside, so the windows don’t show off their color like I remember. Maybe that’s it.

I’m pacing the aisles, and it’s reminding me of how old Mr. Jones used to pace them, hands shaking and tongue shaking as he spewed out what we call our own prayer language. He scared the junk out of me, that man. I laugh thinking about my six-year-old self seeing a wrinkly, wobbly old guy shouting in what sounded like a cross between Spanish and a toddler trying to speak English with a stutter. Boy, he would tell me in a quiet voice when he wasn’t praying, you’re just like your father. Just like your father.

I remember again why I’m here. I continue rubbing the key; it’s still cold.

Funny.

There was a point not too long ago when my father would worry excessively that I was going to hell. It’s not like he told me those words, exactly: “I think you might be going to hell”. And he never once told me to go there. But he would preach to me after he’d finished preaching to the church, asked me if I needed a fourth Bible, and at one point he took me to a Christian bookshop to buy fifty dollars’ worth of books that quoted the Bible every other page.

When the time came for me to leave the house, he called me once a week to ask me about the Sunday sermon at the church I was supposed to be attending. The one we (he) had decided upon, after spending an entire evening reading “What we’re about” pages on every church website in Ohio. I’d roll around in my bed and lift the phone to my ear before I’d register it was him, bright and early Monday morning the one day I got to sleep in, asking me ‘how was church!?’ Truth is, I attended church now and then, but when I didn’t I usually knew what to say to make him think I’d gone. Sundays I usually spent sleeping in, dealing with my pile of procrastination spewed all over my desk, and updating my Netflix queue.

We’re praying for you, he would always say before I hung up. As if he could tell that, despite all my words, I wasn’t sure about this whole God thing those days.

I wasn’t.

I had met a friend named Brian, and we were focusing on our music. University was just a means of pleasing our parents and ensuring some sort of security to fall back on while our music was beginning to take off. I’m in a band, we could say to our elders and childhood friends. Their eyebrows would raise and they would nod, sympathetic. And I’m also studying Architecture and Business. Oh! They would perk up. Isn’t that something? A man of many talents!

We were an acoustic band called Scream Oh! We thought that was a hoot. We wrote songs mostly about girls and about the ironies of life and double-meanings. My favorite song was one about doubting love after a harsh break-up; when I sang “she takes from my hands what can’t be replaced/ the skin from my palms/ exposing real bones that could never love her face”, I knew that I was also talking about the church, about God.

And my father kept calling me.

Once a week, Monday morning. The start of the week for me, the second day of it for him.

The key in my hand is being pressed violently into my skin. I’m squeezing it. The shape of it is in my palm for a brief second, the blood hot red around it. When I look up from my palm I see that there are new flowers in the vases by the altar. Mom must’ve done it, which surprises me. The woman who orders the same coffee every morning and goes to bed at nine forty-five to the minute, has switched out the vases full of red roses for white ones. I walk up to the altar, bend down and take a whiff of them. They smell the same. Like Saturday walks to Flora’s Flower Shop, begging mom for an ice cream or a bag of Pop Rocks since I’ve been good considering I’ve been forced to spend an entire afternoon in some girlie flower shop.

Smelling them makes me nostalgic for the first time since I’ve walked in here. I scrunch my knees up and sit on them, touching both my palms to the prickly carpet. It’s the same. I lay my back and my head flat against it, staring at the white arched ceiling. Before I’m aware of what I’m doing, I’m rolling two rolls to the left, my nose scrunched underneath the bottom of one of the old pews. It smells like dirt and musk and old lady’s perfume and wood and mint leaf and of sweat and sermons and shouting.

And that’s when I remember how Big Red was the best gum already-chewed. Most definitely. If the sermon got a little too long, you’d just plop your head down like you were taking a nap, then as soon as everyone got loud and jumped up screaming Hallelujah Amen Preach it, roll yourself right underneath the tops of the old pews, grab a wad of that pre-chewed stuff and think about how momma won’t find out you’re chewing another person’s spit, ‘cause she’s too busy watching everyone get saved. Juicy Fruit was often underneath those pews, too, but all the sugar had drained out of those pieces. Not Big Red. Big Red tasted like fire and cinnamon and even when it got raw in your mouth, when you would let it sit out for a little bit then put it back in, it would taste brand new again. Like fire, just as strong as the first time.

I’m laughing. My nose is shaking underneath the pew and my gut is shaking against it a little, too. I know I’m obviously bigger than what I used to be, but I didn’t understand it until right now. Why didn’t I crawl under a pew last time I was here?

Last time I was here, I was eighteen and about to travel halfway across the States for school; telling my parents I was going so far for the education, but knowing it was mostly to get away. I went into that building without my family knowing, especially Dad. He might get too sentimental. Make it something I was convinced it wasn’t. It was early, around five a.m. I snuck the key out of mom’s purse on the kitchen counter and made a mad dash down the street. The sky was dusky blue and it was the first time I had been alone in it. The trees leading up to the doors were waiting on the side of the road with their crooked fingers pointed up toward the sky. They would often make me wonder if trees could take some of our places the way rocks were going to, raising their hands to the sky while the rocks cried out.

Walking into the church was like smelling a familiar scent from my past, though I hadn’t yet left it. It was a formal farewell to a place I both loved and loathed the responsibility of. I watched my face change for ten years in that big, finger-printed mirror over there; that is, when I was tall enough to see past the mini table with the tacky fake flowers on display. Momma saved the real flowers for around the altar. I had dreams that I was sliding off the top of that staircase right there, fingernails scratching the carpet to keep me from falling. I had those dreams after I would crawl under the pews and press my tired face into the prickly carpet to take a nap, while phrases like “are you truly saved?” and “you are not perfect, but He is” slipped into those dreams. I had been there not only on Sundays but on days my dad needed to work overtime in his office; his office that was jammed full of what I thought must have been important papers, so important he couldn’t throw any of them away or the whole building might be snatched from us. I knew every tile on the floor in the kitchen, knew where to find the keys to open the snack machine and steal Skittles, knew how the church looked when the sun was just starting to come up and when the sun was just starting to go down.

When we stayed after service, which we usually did, I would sit in the swivel chair in the office and pretend that I was the new pastor. I am sad to inform you, good church people who love Jesus, that my dad has unfortunately died in a suddenly deadly car pile-up. Or, actually, he just wanted to go on an extra-long vacation to Fijis, ‘cause that’s not super sad. In those moments I was married with a wife and kids, bossing my wife to make me coffee (black, like a real man took his coffee) and file something important, telling my kids to be respectful and stop playing on the desk tables. I don’t know if Dad ever saw me in those moments, but if he did you can bet he was overjoyed. He would say it plain and simple: This place is yours if you want it, and I can’t help but hope that you do, son.

I was eight while I was playing those pastor games. Thinking that all it involved was sitting in those swivel chairs and having a pretty wife to file vital things for you, while you were making phone calls with a deep man-voice asking people how they were doing with Jesus these days. Maybe counseling every now and then, letting someone lay on the office couch, pencil on my lip, quoting scripture every time they brought up a problem.

I don’t know when exactly the games stopped. I simply grew up and understood the responsibilities that I could never fully grasp when I was eight, and started planting other dreams. It would start with music lessons, a lyric scribbled on a napkin, visions of performing in a band underneath lights that made my long hair drip sweat; talking to a swarm of girls who thought showing emotions like that was hot.

When I was eight I could sit in a swivel chair like my dad’s and feel what it might be like to lead people to the Lord, to save lost souls, to show them  how to love Jesus. But when I was eighteen I had given up fully, knowing that to execute it was an altogether different concept.

One day I thought about the church and it sent bile shooting up my throat, real, raw-tasting bile. Why was I baptized when I was seven? I didn’t know any better. The church had been a comfort, a safety zone. But it was gone. And it wasn’t real. None of it was real. I read poetry about wanting to believe in God, but not being able to: Why am I blind to sights my brethren see? I wrote songs about doubt. Why was I restrained from life, real life? Restrained from trying drugs or having sex or getting drunk or believing in Buddha or goddesses or Greek mythology? It’s not that I wanted those things, necessarily, but I didn’t want to be told that I could not want them when I wasn’t sure if I did or not. And finally, why did I have to be a bad person simply because I couldn’t believe, really believe?

So the most spontaneous decision of my life came to be—in a rush of adrenaline and boiling blood I spun the globe on the top of my desk, closed my eyes, and crushed my finger into it after a few seconds had passed. Screw the band. Screw the Monday-morning phone calls about going to church and putting me through spells of unnecessary guilt. Screw the lying to my father. Screw the two years left of my major. Screw wanting to travel the world but never doing it. Screw wanting to go after something but never knowing what it should be.

If I opened my eyes and my finger was in the middle of the ocean, well hell, I’d find my way there.

I opened them.

And there it was; my finger over a teardrop. Sri Lanka. I was going to Sri Lanka.

Before I had time to talk myself back into being rational, I was buying a one-way ticket, throwing what I could fit into my dusty suitcase and applying for a fast-track Passport. The next few weeks passed and I dropped out of school. I sold what I could of my furniture, some clothes. I called my parents only when I was in the airport to tell them. It came out robotic, like a recording. I still can’t remember what they said to me, not how they acted or whether or not their voice fluctuated, I was so numb.

That’s what was so funny, huh? That I could close my eyes and let my finger land on such a foreign ground then drop everything and leave, thinking some part of me would be fulfilled by doing so. Thinking I would leave all my doubts and fear of the unknown behind. Thinking if I was surrounded by all things new, maybe I could be new, too.

But it was what was the same that brought me revelation. When I arrived, the ground still held my feet. There was still dirt underneath my toes, and trees were still a greenish color in the summer. Birds still populated the air, and people still knew how to smile or frown or laugh. The air could still get sticky, a breeze could still rush in. I knew nothing of their native languages, but found a good amount of friends who could speak English by my second day. But even then, though I didn’t understand most everybody all around me, though they spoke something that sounded babbling and foreign, I understood what they were trying to say. There was a lady trying to barter for fruit at the market, her two children strewn about her knees and starving. There was a man with his head held high, walking in front of his wife, showing his life off. People needed food like I needed food, and we ate in the same way, with our mouths and eyes and noses. There were eyes full of love, eyes full of rage, eyes that were empty. I was seeking for a world where no man would think himself greater than the other. No man would tell another what to do. Where wealth and food would be shared, where hands would be opened freely; a world conjured up in the crevices of my mind, a place safe and all mine… and I knew, immediately, that I would never fully find it here, or back home, or anywhere. A world conjured up in the crevices of my mind, a place safe and all mine.

Yet I stayed. Weeks, months. Taking up odd-end jobs wherever I could find them. Living on the loans meant for school.

The closest friend I had was a man who spoke English, Saman, but not as well as most. The first man I met who could understand when I asked “Do you speak English, please?”

When I asked him after months of friendship what he believed the meaning of life was, he told me that it was whatever I wanted to believe it was. We were lying on a spray of smooth brown-red rocks, listening to the ocean.

“Life means what you want,” he said.

“What if I don’t know what I want?”

“Life means that.”

“But don’t you ever think there has to be more than you and me?”

“Yes.”

“Then, what is it?”

“What you want it, I think.”

The waves crashed around us still. They were much too far away to touch our toes, yet I had visions of them snatching us by the ankles, leading us out into the open sea where we knew nothing.

In the middle of that sea, what would we believe? That, as our heads bobbed above the surface, we were still the most powerful beings? As our legs and arms grew weary of kicking, there was still hope? I once was taught that Jesus could walk on water. Would I think about that if I was in the middle of it, drowning? If a man were to come to me, stepping on the water as if it were smooth pavement, would I touch his hand, or fear it were an illusion and not even try, confident in my own senses in that moment of panic and sinking fear?

Saman and I continued to talk. I told him about Sunday school and growing up believing in God right there; it was the first time I had talked about what I was running from all the time I had been there. We talked until sundown. We stretched our arms and let the blood enter other parts of our body; on the red rocks we breathed like we hadn’t before.

One week later I found a church buried under lively green trees, in a little cream building. There were no pews. We folded our legs and sang in a language I didn’t know. Yet all around me, I felt that I understood what was happening. A familiar sensation lit up the air, whisking me off to the days of sitting on my knees around my father’s altar, covering my eyes with my hands and asking God to please please show me what he thought about me, what he wanted me to do. Receiving a response that always just said I love you, coming over my body like a runner’s high, like a good night’s rest, like if I wanted to I could fly… a lightness, a simplicity. God? I whispered for the first time in years. But as soon as it came off my lips, it didn’t feel like a question anymore.

One year later I went home. My twenty-three hour layover was in Dubai, and I took the opportunity to scale the Burj Khalifa. Standing atop the observation deck, watching the way the earth curved, I knew I could never go back to not believing in God. Because as I looked out beyond me, to the very horizon and dip of the globe, I found myself saying under my breath: “This is it.” This was the tallest building in the world. This was as far up as we had ever gone, and even if we went any further up from the ground, we would still ever only be under the sky.

All my dreams of escaping the church and God led me to here, the tallest building on the earth, only to realize that not even here could I see everything.

The key is warm in my hands. I roll out from underneath the pew. There’s this verse in my head that’s been playing as if it’s a soundtrack on repeat for the past few weeks since father called: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he’s old, he will not depart from it”. I’m not old yet. Twenty-five years old with memories of this place at ten, still fresh in corners of my brain. Memories of Sri Lanka and going to church with Saman and standing on top of the Burj Khalifa in another corner. Memories of sitting in the basement making music for hours, of thinking that the best in life was to be found only in words I created.

I’ve been back to school. I’ve sat through Business classes with a fresh mind. I’ve been attending a church each week not with feelings of obligation, but because when I wake up Sunday mornings I know there’s no place I’d rather be. I am more confident that life is not about me, not about how I see it, more than I’ve ever been.

I walk up to the white roses again, and smell them. It’s like they’ve lost their color. Maybe I’m more observant than I give myself credit for. They’ve gone from red to white. Clean.

My dad didn’t expect to get a call from me yesterday, I bet. Telling them guess what, I’m coming over there tomorrow, just for a weekend. I’m closer to them now, and much closer than Sri Lanka of course, but still further than they’d like me to be. So they’re of course thrilled that I said I’m coming, though I knew mom would spend the next twenty-four hours dusting in-between the kitchen tiles.

Here I am now, the key warm in my hand. An offer I know still exists. You can work here with me, son. You’re always welcome. The very place I thought I would avoid. The very place that taught me to love God yet taught me to unknowingly hate him and mistrust him, too.

In Sunday school, I was always the star pupil. Answering all the questions before any other kid had a chance to think about them. The star of Bible trivia and Sword Drills and that kid who sang a solo in the Christmas pageant every year, wearing a shepherd’s costume.

But one specific day in Sunday school we shared our prayer requests out loud. Everyone was required to say something, and we went in a circle. Karen asked if we could please pray for her grandma who was very sick. Matty asked if we could pray for his leg which he had broken a week ago, and also his baby sister who was a brat. Finally, it got to me. I had been racking my brain trying to come up with something that needed prayer. Before I was ready, it was my turn, and my body went cold. I don’t need prayer, I had told them. Well, what about someone else that you know? My teacher had suggested. I thought about it, thought hard. Then, I looked up from my palms and said: I don’t know what they need.

Me, star Sword Driller, always the shepherd with the solo in the Christmas plays. Son of the pastor, Bible quizzer.

I wasn’t even aware of what people needed prayer for, or what I needed it for, either.

I continue pacing the aisles. I walk up the few steps to the pulpit, standing upright behind it, shoulders back. I imagine hundreds of faces in front of me, expectant. When I do, a chill goes down my spine so good and so frightening. That scripture in Luke about the Holy Spirit speaking through me jettisons through my mind, and I find myself saying out loud, Yeah, Holy Spirit, you better, or we’re in trouble. I scan the crowd. There’s those elderly ladies in the back, their walkers sitting next to them. Mr. Jones’ wife, Edna, and her best friend Mary. Today they are going to receive healing, I don’t care how old they are. And there, on the right, is Walter Wimbley and his family. Anne, his eldest daughter with an eating disorder, is going to be told how beautiful she is. And it won’t come from human lips that have so long haunted and deceived her, and can never make her feel worthy. It will come from the lips of her father that will skip through her vanity and insecurity and fall into her soul like a seed, sprouting words of true beauty and life. And there, in the middle, underneath the second pew is a child that looks like me. He’s picking the bottom of the pew, tugging at a piece of gum that keeps bouncing back into the air. Son, I’ll tell him. You’ll remember these words that you hear. And even though you’ll have to wander to figure it out for yourself, you’ll know that these words are always an option. And I wish I could tell you this so you would understand, really understand, that these words are true. They’re not mine, so they’re true. But you’ll still have to learn that for yourself, and I can’t help that.

I try to keep my back straight, but it crumples. I fall to my knees on the stage, shaky. I don’t know if my life will keep me here or take me back to Sri Lanka or lead me to another place somewhere like the middle of the ocean, where I think for a moment that maybe I’ll drown.

I crawl back down the steps, on hands and knees, and lie down against the carpet once more. This place will change. The carpet will be taken out, the flowers will die, the pews will rot. One day it will be demolished, turned into dust. Its bones will die. But its body—its real body, the one that must be discovered aside from the carpet and pews and flowers, will continue to live as it has for so long. Stretching its fingers and toes and heartbeat toward every region of the world, every corner of the mind; moved by something grander than this human heart.

back when I sat in the backseat.

In my grammie’s basement discovering that when I was little, trees grew from my head.

It’s funny how sometimes I think I’d like to go back to these days. (Because really, I don’t think I would). I had an excellent childhood and I can’t complain, and I can’t say I fully understand those who haven’t had such a ‘romantic’ childhood.

But I do believe that as much as it shapes you, it doesn’t bind you. We grow out of those tiny bodies and though we might be able to remember vividly what it’s like to be in them, we don’t ever go back to them.

What’s the first thing you think of when you think of childhood?

Image

Summer has taken me now to Aurora, Colorado, in a hasty decision to furthermore put off thoughts of returning to school.

And guess what?

I think I understand Coloradans… growing up in a place like this….the very sky is telling you you’re limitless.

Yet as I was walking today with the Rockies in a hazy dusk-violet backdrop, kissed by drops of soft rain with each step, I came upon a sunflower bush bearing two faces.
One face full, alive, the other curled at its ends and dripping down its stem.
And I thought to myself, funny how you can grow on the same bush and look a different thing entirely.

Why was one flower dying while the other one was bright yellow and bold against the sky? Why was one sagging and turning a sickly mustard color, the other one shouting at your eyes with a boldness that dared you to just try and look away.

Under the limitless sky I pondered the two faces. My thoughts wandered not only about the sunflowers, but about the planes circling this limitless sky all day, planes that were probably somewhere up there still. Planes, no not just planes, really, but fighters. Ready to strike down what we so hastily labeled our enemy, if need be. All air force bases across the nation and maybe even the world had a color change this past week as we watched and heard the news; people out there aren’t too happy with the way we do things around here.

It’s strange. Strange to think some of them, most of them, have never seen the way the sunflowers around here watch the sun go down the Rockies, bodies shifting with the wind without a fight. Some of them haven’t seen the way some sunflowers droop and some live and yet sunflowers stay on the same branch, close, mirroring each others’ movements because they are kin.

Some of them have never smelled the rain hit the pavements of a neighborhood where moms and kids shout at each other, yes, but in the evening they stroll hand-in-hand or bike-beside-bike in a silence as they stare into the faint yellow and orange of the end. Realizing that the day is over and grumpy morning was years ago.

Thismorning I went with Grammie and Tom to the mall and Tom talked about World War II and Grammie talked about the best way to bake Chocolate Nutella muffins (start with zilch; start from scratch–they turn out sweetest that way).

Colorado rained as it shined under ninety-one degrees.

I blew a dandelion into a field of corn-yellow grass mixed with multiple patches of green. Mmm.

I thought about how I’d climb all the mountains and when I finally conquered Longs Peak, that man who just hiked it back in July with his cello would do it again, and would be up there playing when I arrived and all my breath would come back and I would finally dream, awake.

But then we couldn’t get into the base today to buy Tom’s medicine, because I didn’t have my I.D. They were doing 100% check-ups today. Al Qaeda wanted us dead, and I wished they wouldn’t because I didn’t want us dead, and I wished they wouldn’t because I didn’t want anybody wishing them dead.

Soon we left the mall and crossed the street, and the giant sign “Century” pierced through the blue-gray day and I thought about the dead, God rest their souls, whose eyes had seen it last lit up in the midnight sky. Before they knew anything of people who harbored desires of death for death’s sake toward them, specifically.

Under the limitless sky here I see mountains that can hold you or throw you, rain that can grow gardens or drown dogs. People who will move like nature; swaying in the wind with multiple faces on the same branch, in the same way. Unpredictable, limited.

I can close my right eye and see the full flower trying to raise itself even higher, close my left and see the one with its head toward the ground. With both eyes open I see them all.

When I do a 360 I can’t see the entire sky but I know what it’s like. It’s limited, no matter how it makes me feel, and I am too. Waiting with the sunflowers for the moment when it does something new.

I am firm and drooping, both facing upward and finding my way to the ground, eager to see something new.

Stop holding up with your hands

the feet of the one whose soul is set on the decimation of the divine; see, he can only stay up as long as he’s being held, wherever he is being held. It’s up to your hands.

Let them drop, worthless at your sides and swinging, so you know that not only is he falling but all else you thought you could hold on your own is, too.